Justice on trial: The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal

Mumia’s case is a primer for understanding the relationship between racism and the criminal justice system in the US.

Abu-Jamal was arrested on December 9, 1981, for the alleged fatal shooting of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner and was convicted and sentenced to death in July 1982 in a trial riddled with constitutional violations [AFP]

On the same week that the French Secretary of State, Laurent Fabius, pledged that France would help lead the worldwide efforts to abolish the death penalty, elected officials of the city of Bobigny (pronounced BO-BEE-NYEE) held an inaugural ceremony for the naming of a street in honour of the celebrated former death row prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal. 

Mumia Abu-Jamal’s eldest son, Jamal Hart, travelled to Bobigny to accept the honour on behalf of his father. The ceremony marked the second time that a working-class suburb of Paris named a street after Mumia; the first street was named after him in 2006 in Saint Denis. 

The Bobigny event drew people from both sides of the Atlantic, including Native American activist Bill “Jimbo” Simmons, Lanquiray Painemal, a Maputhe Indian activist in Chile, as well as dozens of immigrants and their supporters, who have been victims of police violence in France. 

Despite the relative silence on this famous court case in mainstream discourse in the United States, the eloquent imprisoned journalist behind the case continues to be an object of marvel and inspiration to people of conscience around the world. 

Most famous prisoner in the world

The man that the world knows simply as Mumia is a prolific writer and radio journalist, who has maintained equanimity in the face of an unrelenting campaign of persecution and demonisation at the hands of the Pennsylvania courts and Fraternal Order of the Police. 

In the United States, his recorded commentaries and live interviews are requested every week by local radio programmes that are seeking to connect with thousands of listeners who are daily affected by mass incarceration and the growing surveillance and policing of predominantly black and Latino urban communities across the country. 

For many, the case of the most famous prisoner in the world is a primer for understanding the relationship between racism and the criminal justice system in the US in the post-civil rights era. 

The unveiling of the street sign in Bobigny on October 13, 2012, took place a year after Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was vacated on October 11, 2011. At that time, the Supreme Court allowed to stand the previous rulings of four federal judges who determined that the manner in which the death sentence was sought by the Philadelphia prosecutor, 30 years earlier, was flawed and unconstitutional. 

“Bobigny is the most ethnically diverse city in all of France, where immigrants belonging to over 120 different ethnicities have made
their home.”

In her address, Bobigny Mayor Catherine Peyge told the crowd of 100-plus people who gathered outdoors on that rainy Saturday afternoon, that the “The heart of Bobigny is in solidarity with progressive men and women who fight for the dignity and the liberation of humanity”. 

Comparing the fight for Mumia’s freedom to the historic struggles to free Nelson Mandela and Kurdish political prisoner Leyla Zana, she asserted that, “one day Mumia will walk a free man, on this street that bears his name”. 

The Mayor’s remarks, which linked Mumia’s case to the global fight for justice and racial equality, resonated with residents of Bobigny. 

Bobigny is the most ethnically diverse city in all of France, where immigrants belonging to over 120 different ethnicities have made their home. 

The street-naming ceremony was part of a week of public events around the case, which included a screening of the film, Justice on Trial: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an exhibit of photographs of the movement to free Mumia, the longest-standing social movement of the post-civil rights era, as well as the staging of a scene from a play written by award-winning playwright Alain Foix whose plot develops around a conversation between Martin Luther King and Mumia Abu-Jamal. 

The naming of a street in Bobigny after Abu-Jamal climaxed after a hard-won campaign that spanned approximately 10 years, required the construction of a new street, and involved a series of debates in city council about the importance of the case and its constitutional and human rights violations. 

Erosion of civil liberties and democracy

The project was begun following a special trip to the US taken by the city’s former Mayor, Bernard Birsinger, to visit Mumia in Western Pennsylvania’s supermax facility, SCI Greene. 

Birsinger, who died in 2004, wrote poignantly about his visit in the French Press and about his sense of Mumia’s courage, eloquence and dignity. Today, in France, discussions of Mumia’s case prompt echoes of Birsinger’s often quoted words: “I have seen a free man on death row.” 

Cognizant of the alarming carceral statistics in the US, which represents 5 per cent of the world’s population but holds 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners, progressive voices in France tie the violations in Mumia’s case to the erosion of civil liberties and democracy across the globe.

They argue that, as a prescription for social ills, the violent and repressive character of incarceration normalises social control and erodes the fabric of freedom and liberty in society. 

Abu-Jamal was arrested on December 9, 1981, for the alleged fatal shooting of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. 

He was convicted and sentenced to death in July 1982 in a trial riddled with constitutional violations that included judicial bias, prosecutorial misconduct, discrimination in jury selection and tampering with evidence by police to obtain a conviction. 

An Amnesty International report written in 2000 concluded that the Abu-Jamal trial “failed to meet international standards safeguarding fair trial proceedings”. 

The clearest sign that the Abu-Jamal trial was a miscarriage of justice came only two weeks after the end of the trial, when a third of the police officers involved in the case, including its lead investigator, police inspector Alfonzo Giordano, were tried and eventually convicted of rank corruption, extortion and tampering with evidence. 

These police convictions were the result of a federal investigation of the Philadelphia Police Department – the largest the US Department of Justice had ever conducted of a police department – that concluded that the level of corruption discovered “shocks the conscience”. 

Since the early 1990s, the people of Bobigny have been leading
voices in the international fight to keep Abu-Jamal alive [AFP]

Years later, a court stenographer, Terry Maurer Carter, testified under oath that she heard the presiding judge in the case, Albert Sabo, say to another judge, “I’m going to help them fry the nigger”, referring to how he was going to instruct the jury. 

Of all the compelling evidence of innocence in this case, the most important and least known is the existence of a fourth person at the crime scene, a man named Kenneth Freeman. In Patrick O’Connor’s excellent book, The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal, he argues that Freeman, not Abu-Jamal, killed the officer, Faulkner. 

Within hours of the shooting, a driver’s licence application found in Faulkner’s shirt pocket led the police to Freeman, who was identified as the shooter in a line-up. Yet, Freeman’s presence at the scene was concealed, first by inspector Giordano and later, at trial, by prosecutor Joe McGill. 

Prosecutorial and judicial misconduct

Yet, despite widespread evidence of innocence and prosecutorial and judicial misconduct during the conviction phase of the trial, the only relief that the courts have granted Mumia has been on his sentence – and even that came after 30 years on death row. 

Following the Supreme Court motion last year, which confirmed the unconstitutionality of his original death sentence, the Philadelphia DA, Seth Williams, announced in a press conference on December 8, 2011, that his office would not pursue a new death sentence in the Abu-Jamal case. 

The next day, Mumia was transferred to a new facility in Pennsylvania where for 50 days he was housed in Administrative Custody or a Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU), the prison’s sanitised designation for solitary confinement. 

He was finally transferred to general population on January 27, 2012, after an unrelenting campaign by his supporters, which included an impromptu sit-in and the delivery of 5,000 signatures to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections alongside of a special statement by United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, denouncing human isolation for more than 15 days, as torture. 

The latest egregious violation of due process in the case came on August 13, 2012, when Judge Pamela Dembe, President of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, in secret filed an order sentencing Mumia to life in prison, without notifying him or his attorneys of the motion. 

Had the clandestine filing not been discovered, by chance, by his former attorney Rachel Wolkenstein, the 10-day window within which defendants are allowed the right of appeal in such instances would have elapsed and any future challenges to his confinement irreparably compromised. 

In the end, Mumia filed a Pro Se Motion for Post-Sentence Relief and Reconsideration of Sentence without a second to spare, exactly 10 days after the sentence was secretively issued in violation of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure. 

Mumia’s eloquent prison broadcasts and writings have made him world famous as the “Voice of the Voiceless”. 

But after having lived through the gamut of punishments meted out in America’s prisons, from death row torture to solitary confinement and the slow death of incarceration in general population, Mumia now stands in a unique position to continue to analyse and fight against the nation’s machine of mass incarceration. 

Following his transfer to general population, Mumia reported that while he wrote about mass incarceration for close to 30 years, he didn’t realise the extent to which his isolation on death row, ironically, mitigated his grasp of the human cost of mass incarceration. 

Despite his political understanding of the problem, he was not prepared for its horrid and inhumane reality. 

In a live conversation at the Cathedral Saint John the Divine with the activist-scholar and former political prisoner, Angela Davis, in April 2012, Mumia observed that at SCI Mahanoy, where he is currently housed, there are over 200 men in wheelchairs, another 500 walking with canes and the remainder look like children.  

Thirty years of death row torture

In the 1990s, Mumia was served three death warrants. The fact that for 30 years an international movement kept Abu-Jamal alive long enough for the appeals process to run its course is sobering. 

“Mumia’s life, work and influence is the subject of an excellent new film, Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal, directed by Stephen Vittoria.”

In each of these dreadful instances, tens of thousands of people marched in protest of Abu-Jamal’s execution from New York and Oakland to Philadelphia and Washington, DC, and before the American consulates in cities around the world, from Paris to Sao Paulo. 

Since the early 1990s, the people of Bobigny have been leading voices in the international fight to keep Abu-Jamal alive. 

In 1999, Bobigny granted Mumia honourary-citizen status and in so doing, it became one of over two-dozen cities around the world – including, Venice and Palermo in Italy, Montreal, Detroit, San Francisco and Saint-Anne in Martinique – to confer such an honour on Mumia. 

The most widely recognised of such ceremonies happened in 2003 in Paris. Its mayor at the time, Bertrand Delanoe, invited Angela Davis to accept that city’s honourary citizen award on behalf of Mumia, an honour that had last been bestowed in 1971 on the legendary artist, Pablo Picasso.  

During the same period and since, international bodies, including the European Parliament, the UN, the Japanese Diet and the Congressional Black Caucus in the US have written formal statements denouncing his death sentence, condemning the manner in which his conviction was obtained and calling for a new trial or for Mumia’s freedom. 

The recent Supreme Court motion that vacated his death sentence also came amidst a massive shift in public sentiment against the death penalty and mass incarceration occasioned by the ruthless execution of Troy Davis, the emergence of the Occupy movement, the murder of Trayvon Martin and the growing public discussion of Michelle Alexander’s ground-breaking book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

In a letter to Mumia dated December 8, 2011 – the same day that the Philadelphia DA’s decision not to pursue another sentencing trial signalled that Mumia’s death sentence would be commuted to life in prison without parole – the Mayor of Bobigny, Catherine Peyge, wrote: “Like all the people of Bobigny, I am personally relieved by the choice made by the Supreme Court not to follow the fury of those who want to see you dead. I know that this decision does not end your torment. In Bobigny we will continue to fight for a new trial that will eventually prove your innocence.” 

The appellate process, which is now exhausted, failed Mumia as it has hundreds of thousands like him. What we need now is to build a movement that will not compromise with the continued imprisonment of one of the most eloquent voices of justice and freedom of the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Mumia’s life, work and influence is the subject of an excellent new film, Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal, directed by Stephen Vittoria. 

After 30 years of death row torture – which the State formally acknowledges was imposed unconstitutionally – Mumia should be immediately released from prison and awarded restitution for time served. 

Freeing Mumia and ending mass incarceration in America is one of the most important moral assignments of our time. 

Johanna Fernandez is assistant professor of History at Baruch College of the City University of New York and writer and producer of Justice on Trial: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.